Next time you sit down at dinner, try to tap on the table with your hand to the rhythm of your favorite song. Can other people guess what it is?
Most people will not, and this is normal even for well known rhythms like the birthday song. In our heads it makes perfect sense, but our tapping makes no sense to anyone else. Once you tell them what you were going for, they might say — oh, yes, i get it know, it’s obvious!
Listening to scientific talks at a conference can be a similar process. We have all sat in great talks were we were lost right after the title slide. Everything said made perfect sense to the speaker, but not to their audience. The point being that sometimes we don’t know what it is like to not know something. In particular, things that we see and do on a daily basis might seem trivial to us — so when we explain it we assume a certain knowledge in others.
Next time try to think of what it was like before your cup was full of knowledge. Start by determining your goal for presenting and who your audience is going to be. Here are some examples:
- Give exposure to your research
- Overcome your fears of public speaking
- Good media to network with someone at the conference
- Test acceptance of a new idea
- Get feedback on a project for a paper you want to write
- Grad students, postdocs and faculty from different fields
Who is your audience?
- Experts in your methodology, but not your system of study
- Experts in your system of study, but not the methods
- Group meeting
- Thesis committee
Then, try to think about what are the most efficient ways to communicate to that audience and accomplish your goal. A common mistake is to pitch to one or two experts in the room and alienate everyone else by focusing the whole talk on technical details. In reality, if anyone cares about specific details they will ask you later. But, if you loose someone and they reach for their laptops or phones, you are not getting them back! And that’s a missed chance, your next collaborator might be in the audience.
Talking to the whole room does not mean that you need to dumb down your presentation. Here are a few things to look out for:
- Give a big picture overview of why you are doing this and what your research accomplishes.
- Don’t talk about the chronology of your technical difficulties — all science is about overcoming them and finding new ways forward, it’s expected that it was not smooth sailing.
- Add a couple of technical slides, they will establish that you know what you are talking about and will show experts that they can ask more about it later.
- Don’t wait for your final result at the end of your talk as a surprise — you might have lost your audience by then.
- Instead, tell them * 3: tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.
- Think what you didn’t know when you started the project — this is likely the level of most of your audience.
- A plot, rather than a story, will make your communication more efficient.
What other techniques do you use to get the most out of your talks?